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How Addiction and Genetics are Related

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Last Updated on

Do you know anyone who seems to have addiction coursing through their veins? They come from a long line of alcoholics, drug addicts or gamblers, and it’s almost as if they’re destined to become addicts themselves. But is addiction genetic, learned behavior or something else entirely?

Let’s explore the connection between addiction and genetics.

Genetics is About Half of the Equation

Many studies have shown us that addiction is half genetics and half due to personal coping skills. An early study on the topic was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and found that between 48 and 58 percent of a person’s propensity to addiction was attributed to genetic factors. The study compared identical and fraternal twins and compared their propensity for addiction. Researchers found that when one identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other was much more likely to be an alcoholic.

Through research, we know that someone with a family history of addiction is much more likely to become an addict, but there’s a lot about addiction and genetics that science is still figuring out.

Digging Deeper into Addiction and Genetics

Naturally, there are certain genes that are responsible for a person’s likelihood to develop an addiction. Actually, multiple genes may play a role in your propensity for addiction. Some work directly and others work indirectly.

For example, people of Asian descent carry a gene that affects how their bodies metabolize alcohol, which may lead to symptoms like flushing or rapid heartbeat. If you were to have this gene, you’d probably avoid alcohol, regardless of family history. This is an example of one gene that may indirectly impact someone’s chances of developing an alcohol addiction.

Most of the current research on addiction is done with the help of animal models, especially mice because their reward pathways work much in the same way as ours. Researchers run tests on mice to identify genes that play a role in addiction, and then they associate those genes with the corresponding human genes.

You may be wondering why we’d go through so much trouble. Well, one goal of genetic research on addiction is to help improve treatment options. If science can identify a gene or group of genes involved in addiction, they may be able to create a drug that alters that gene’s expression.

We’re a long way from genetic treatment, but it is one important goal. In the meantime, we’re each left to manage our own propensity for addiction.

What to do if You Have a Family History of Addiction

If addiction runs in your family, don’t panic. You have a choice to see the glass as half-empty or half-full.

With about a 50 percent chance of becoming addicted yourself, you still have a lot of power.

Clearly, not everyone with a family history of addiction becomes an addict. You can be among those who follow another path. Here are some tips for helping you avoid addiction despite family history.

Stay Strong in Your Youth

If you’re worried that you may eventually become an addict or alcoholic, employ your strongest willpower in your teenage years. People who experiment with drugs and alcohol when they’re young are more likely to develop addictions that follow them into adulthood. If you can avoid substances of abuse during this sensitive time, you’ll increase your odds of avoiding addiction.

Avoid Addictive Drugs

This one should go without saying, but if you have a greater chance of becoming addicted, don’t take drugs that will send you down that path. This includes more than street drugs like cocaine and heroin. If at all possible, try to find safer alternatives to addictive prescription medications too. Even you come from a family who struggles with alcoholism, you are still more prone to become addicted to illicit drugs because of your family’s addiction history. You’re not safe because no one before you has abused cocaine, heroin or prescription painkillers.

Practice Moderation

If you do consume addictive substances, do so in moderation. Understand that this is more important for you than it is for other people because you are more prone to drug addiction. So, even when your friends are throwing back the beers, you must remain diligent and stick to one or two.

Addiction does have strong ties with genetics, but genetics do not determine whether someone will become addicted. We each have the power to avoid addiction, regardless of our family histories.

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